Leadership Corner: Douglas Singleton, Executive Director, Charlotte Ballet

Douglas Singleton

Douglas Singleton’s passion for dance began at Spoleto Festival USA with a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. After graduating from the College of Charleston, he moved to New York City to join the Ailey organization and spent more than five years traveling the world with the company. While in New York he also served as producing manager for the premiere performances of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, led by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, and worked with such dance luminaries as Judith Jamison, Masazumi Chaya, Jerome Robbins, Garth Fagan, Elisa Monte, and Lar Lubovitch. He is presently Chair of the Board of Trustees of Dance/USA.

Singleton joined North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT), recently renamed Charlotte Ballet, in 1996 along with current Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. Prior to becoming executive director, he served as director of operations. Under his leadership Charlotte Ballet successfully built the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, which opened in spring 2010, under budget and ahead of schedule. Singleton received the Charlotte Business Journal’s 40 under 40 Award and was selected to the 2008-2010 Class of the William C. Friday Fellowship of Human Relations at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative. In addition, he has also been an advisory board member for Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, N.C., and was a member of the board of directors for the Choir School at St. Peters in Charlotte. He is on the board of directors of ArtsNC and is a member of the Knight Foundation Arts Advisory Committee, as well as a member of the finance committee of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative.  

Singleton and his wife Viki live in Charlotte with their three children, and he is a past chair of Dance/USA’s Managers Council for dance companies with budgets between $3 million to $14.9 million.

Dance/USA: Tell us about your dance epiphany.

Douglas Singleton: Growing up in Charleston, we had several small professional dance companies. But, to be quite honest, dance wasn’t on my radar when I was in high school. I was in the musical theater world. I took dance classes from time to time because you need to understand the vocabulary if you want to be on the stage. But I never trained for a professional dance company. I started off as an actor and got about halfway through college and realized that I enjoyed the process but didn’t love the work. I say that there is one part of the “starving artist” role that I didn’t like: that was the starving part. I knew the road for any artist is long and hard. But I also knew that I never wanted to leave the building. What happens in the theater is magical. It gave me place and purpose from a very early time in my life.

When I went to see the Alvin Ailey company perform at the Spoleto Festival — it was “Winter in Lisbon,” “Shelter” and “Revelations” — I did not have any expectations. I didn’t know what I was walking into. It was one of the most moving performances I ever experienced. “Winter” was this great opener, great jazz music, just fun and beautiful. And then I saw the women of the Ailey company in all of their fierceness perform Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Shelter”; that was just mind blowing — the spoken word, the images and the text all coming together was just a powerful, powerful moment. Then to experience Alvin’s “Revelations” … growing up in the South and understanding that spirituality folks live with was truly a moment that moved me.

I looked at my girlfriend at the time — who is now my wife — and said: “I’m going to work for that company.” And, sure enough, I did.

D/USA: Your early theater work was backstage.

D.S.: I actually attended the College of Charleston on an acting scholarship but my first day as a freshman, I walked into the scene shop and asked the technical director if there was anything I could do and he offered me a job. I was a work-study student in the scene shop from the very beginning while working on the performance career. I was on the production team for Spoleto and was technical director of the Sottile Theater at the college for two years. I got to watch touring companies, including the Spoleto Festival staff, take that venue to its limits production-wise with so many different performances.

When I moved to New York to work with Ailey II … we were on the road 20 to 25 weeks a year. It was a lot of fun and I liked that lifestyle. I stayed a second year, then a position opened up in the first company and I spent three years with the first company traveling the world with an amazing group of talented artists: the dancers, the choreographers, obviously under Judith Jamison’s leadership and Masazumi Chaya, whose friendship I treasure to this day.

I learned that great dance can move audiences everywhere. We toured for 36-plus weeks, and 8 to 10 were in Europe or somewhere internationally; the rest were in every state, in every major city in the United States. We were working hard and making good money, too. That really put me on the path.

D/USA: How was touring in the crew useful for moving into arts administration?

D.S.: My experience with the Ailey company allowed me to gather all of the information on how to manage well. At the time I was a member of AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] and I was part of the representation team during one of the union contract negotiations, which was a very eye-opening experience for me. I learned how it all gets put together: how the budgets are created, what we were doing, and how it all plays into the larger budgets. We were very frugal, but at the same time high levels of excellence were required.

From an arts administration standpoint, stage managers are managing artists. That’s what they do. They manage the contracts, and know what the choreographers, the designers and all the dancers and all the different working conditions are. That was such a great learning experience. I also had great mentors: Calvin Hunt, God rest his soul, was an amazing individual and he spent so much time answering the questions I asked. He was always as transparent as he possibly could have been. There is so much I appreciate about mentors — Calvin was one of mine.

D/USA: You moved to North Carolina to work at North Carolina Dance Theatre. As a resident regional company was that a different ballgame for you?

D.S.: I was still on the expense side of the budget. And I’m still managing expenses — Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s budget, basically. My job was to ensure he got what he needed, but we didn’t always get what we wanted. Jean-Pierre was willing to compromise and think about issues in a different way. I had just gotten off the road with the Ailey company after my first son was born, but North Carolina Dance Theatre was still touring regularly — funding for regional touring was still strong then. As the director of operations for NCDT, I observed how the artistic director and the executive director were managing their relationships, both the good and the bad of that. I had all the experience of how to run production teams in both union and non-union houses and … it went very, very well and for the next nine years. I thought I’d be in Charlotte for a year or two, but … I knew I could continue to grow as an individual, so I stayed.

I tell people that when you get that first job at a non-profit and when one of your colleagues moves on, take on their responsibilities. We were a small organization. When I got there we were barely a $1 million organization. I was doing other contract work as well, keeping myself busy and hustling for the next paycheck.

From touring with Ailey I learned that you have to take care of your artists and you have to have a standard of quality that your artists can be guaranteed on the road, no matter what stage they walked onto. I took that to heart. It was my responsibility and I instilled that into the staff. We made sure our artists were taken care of so by the time they walked out on the stage, pre-production was done, so they could have their space. That was important.

D/USA: What action did you take to get acclimated to the organization?

D.S.: When I was promoted to executive director, I pried open the budget. In every organization you can always pull the audit. It’s a high-level document to understand … but by going through it line by line, I saw how everything was put together and understood how we were projecting expenses and revenues.

I also found Dance/USA’s comparative data. I am a data wonk and I love the numbers and I love to watch how the numbers progress. The numbers tell a story and they’re unbiased. Dance/USA provides [information from] the income statements and the balance sheets for other member companies [as part of the member survey process] …. I pulled out these numbers and it was like the sun broke through the clouds. For ticket sales I saw where we were short and where we were above average, where we were giving away the house …. I was able to get this full picture of the dance industry and that continues to inform my work to this day.

D/USA: You were a successful and growing company as North Carolina Dance Theatre. Why re-brand to the Charlotte Ballet?

D.S.: Re-naming the company had been a question for a long time, prior to my leadership as executive director. We had done audience surveys. Historically, the company was connected to the North Carolina School of the Arts; it basically grew out of the school. In its first years, the mission of the organization was to take dance to all counties in North Carolina and offer employment to the graduates of the school. Touring remains part of our organization because it’s rooted in the company’s DNA. It’s what we do.

The company’s growth over the past ten years has been amazing, but is was also the management and artistic teams working together and ensuring both sides of the equation can grow. We basically doubled our size. We all knew we were in a growing market: When I moved to Charlotte in 1996 there were 700,000 people in the MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area), now there are more than 2 million. As the city was growing we were thinking about strategies about how to adapt and think about the tradition of dance and the tradition of ballet that people bring with them when they move here. So it’s not only what you’re cultivating for your own community, but also how are you adapt in a quickly growing city. We considered carefully how our product lines — performances, training and community engagement — could attract newcomers. So the marketing strategy was the enabler of the re-branding. We looked at our company from a product placement point of view. The more patrons you have, the more opportunities for donors you have. When I started we were probably at 40 percent earned income and 60 percent contributed income; now we are at 60 percent earned income and 40 percent contributed (excluding major gifts). It’s a much healthier model to be working with. But I also quickly realized that you’re never not in campaign mode.

When we moved [to Charlotte], that first board asked, “Should we change to Charlotte Dance Theater?” They heard that they shouldn’t put “ballet” in the name because nobody “does ballet” down here. But during our growth and 20 years of leadership from Jean-Pierre, it was always about ballet. The team pushed back on the traditional images that come to you when the word ballet is mentioned. Our job and responsibility was how do we use video and images aesthetically to push back on what ballet can be versus what ballet was for us.

In one survey with potential customers, the marketing team stripped out anybody who had purchased a dance concert series of any type, but had attended Broadway, music or opera. These potential customers didn’t buy our product but they were cultural consumers. We found in the survey that familiarity with the name NCDT and Charlotte Ballet were almost equal. So, half the people — cultural consumers — already thought Charlotte Ballet existed. That’s when we really got serious about re-branding. The organization has been talking about the name change for over 25 year at that point. I knew we could bring our current audiences with us, but I also understood it could take generations for others. Ballet suggests high-quality training and people know exactly what you’re talking about when you say ballet, versus dance theater. For the potential audiences, dance theater was confusing. Was it a location? Was it theater? Remember, until Charlotte Ballet arrived in Charlotte in 1990-‘91, the community did not have a professional company, so the traditions of dance or ballet were just then being written.

Finally, I didn’t do everything alone. The marketing team for Charlotte Ballet did a tremendous job and this team coordinated some very good marketing and branding specialists to launch this huge change. We re-branded in 2014, but worked on this for three years ahead of time, gathering research, surveying, meeting with the board and stakeholders and consultants. And while the majority of costs were covered by in-kind support, it is probably valued between $250,000 and $300,000. The company spent about $100,000 in cash on it. Once the board gave the go-ahead in January 2014, everything was lined up and the website launched, the name on the building changed and announcements were all made on the same day in April of 2014.

D/USA: Today the company has a staff 93, 26 of whom are in administration, development, outreach, or on the school faculty. Your annual budget is $7.3 million. You’ve played a tremendous role in the company’s success. What keeps you going?

D.S.: This is Jean-Pierre’s final season and I’m excited to celebrate his 20 years of leadership. I have learned so much from Jean-Pierre but a new artistic director is going to keep it fresh. I’m enjoying where Hope Muir is planning to take the company. That is keeping it fresh for me.

Additionally, I love Charlotte. This is home for me. It’s a great place to live and I’m very proud of the values of this community and what we try to instill in our organization and in the community as well. The whole HB2 public bathrooms debacle has been a disaster for the state of North Carolina, but remember Charlotte, its mayor and city council stood up and said, “Equal rights for all people.” I’m very proud of a city that stands up for the rights of all people and makes sure their voices are heard. The protests following the Keith Lamont Scott shooting were painful and eye opening for me. Charlotte is not perfect, perhaps far from it, but the desire of our community, including Charlotte Ballet, is to be a better place, to break down barriers, to create opportunities and move toward the acceptance of difference. Charlotte Ballet has role to play in our community’s healing and future.

D/USA: What advice would you give to an aspiring arts manager?

D.S.: Ask a lot of questions. I have my own personal “board of advisers.” Find your own board of advisers. Find people in your life who you can call upon for certain things. I have an expert on international transportation, a legal expert. And, while Charlotte Ballet’s board members to do this on behalf of the company,  dance executives need to grow our own personal network of sophisticated individuals who care about you. There is no bias. But it’s important if you’re going to do that you have to reciprocate, because you have a lot to offer as a rising arts administrator at the same time. When you can reciprocate, it’s a homerun.

Interviewer Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.


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